Monday, April 14, 2014

How to Grow Virginia Bluebells

Guest Blog by Carol Allen

When I first moved into my then-rural neighborhood, deer sightings were a chance occurrence and I loved to ramble the TROT maintained horse paths through the adjacent Seneca State Park.  I had known of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginiana) through pictures and maybe seeing one or two plants.  Nothing quite prepared me for that first spring! I had noticed the huge numbers of the emerging cluster of leaves where the horse path forded a stream and the banks were wide and gently sloped. I wondered what could possibly be so numerous. Some sort of alien invasive? Back then the biggest concern was Japanese Honeysuckle and abandoned home sites with their masses of Vinca minor. By the last part of March and the first week of April, the plants were uncurling and showing color.  There were hundreds and hundreds of Virginia Bluebells covering areas bigger than city lots! Yes, I succumbed to the temptation and dug up a couple of the younger plants.  I found that mature plants had deep, heavy parsnip-like roots that resisted transplanting.  That was 40 years ago.

The spot down by the ford is long gone, a victim of deer overpopulation and an upstream housing development causing massive erosion of the stream bank. My "little" patch? now a couple of hundred feet square!

Virginia Bluebells are true spring ephemerals and complete their life cycle before the tree's leaves are fully mature. The clustered buds are pink and the flowers open and mature to a beautiful lavender-blue. The leaves are oval and grey-green with the plants reaching a height of 1 - 2'.  They are summer dormant and are gone by late June in our area. Bluebells can be found in floodplains and areas of moist soil.  Mine have flourished in good garden soil with the occasional summer drought-relieving watering.

Seed can be collected in early June as the stems collapse. They can be sown in the fall for spring germination or stored, cold stratified and sown out in the early spring. Crowns can be divided as well. Virginia Bluebells are easy to propagate and can be found in most good nurseries.

Native Americans used the roots of Virginia Bluebells to treat tuberculosis, whooping cough, and other ailments.  Today it is listed as either vulnerable or threatened in both New York and Michigan. Virginia Bluebells are reported to be rabbit-resistant, but sadly they are not deer-resistant.

About the Author
Carol Allen describes herself as a committable plant-a-holic. She has more than 25 years’ experience in the horticulture industry with special interest in plant pests and diseases and is a Licensed Pesticide Applicator in the states of Maryland and Virginia. Carol can be contacted at Carol is also the "InsectIndex" columnist for Washington Gardener Magazine.

Be sure to also visit the companion blog post on great spots in the DC-region to view masses of Virginia Bluebells in bloom.


Angie said...

Of all the plants that the deer eat in my yard, they have never touched my patch of Virginia Bluebells, I think I'd cry if they did!

Anonymous said...

The Rutger's Deer Resistant list indicates they are seldom severely damaged. ...but we know that the deer do not read these lists!